Fieldwork is a fundamental component of my Ph.D. project at UCLA, which is focused on studying mechanisms of local population differentiation in Andean birds. Whether or not mechanisms of local population differentiation are mediated by gene flow is a central question that I am addressing using coalescent approaches to understand ecological and evolutionary processes in a region that is a top global conservation priority.
The aim of my study is to evaluate avian phylogeography in latitudinal and altitudinal gradients in the Tropical Andes. I will also be examining how past climatic fluctuations may have shaped phylogeographic patterns. To determine which mechanisms played a role in promoting population differentiation, I will be modeling the evolution of phenotypic traits, species distributions, and phylogeographic patterns.An accelerated increase in global temperatures is creating a serious threat to avian populations in the Andean region. Studying past warming trends from the last time that the glacial sheets started retreating in the Northern Andes around 18,000 years ago will provide pertinent information that will greatly enhance our ability to predict responses to future climate change and assist conservation efforts.
I like to describe myself as a calm and soft-spoken person, who enjoys taking bird
watching one step further; that is taking notes of natural history. In my case, the spark of
motivation in the field of biology was very simple. I grew up in the countryside of Colombia,
observing many animals that were not drawn in any books of either African or North American
fauna. Since then, I can retrospectively see my own curiosity for learning from any opportunity about the natural world. Educating this motivation has been a long process through many countries and cultures.
During my career, I have combined several forms of training and experiences. I
conducted agricultural research characterizing plant pathogens in the International Center for
Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). There I learned to appreciate the significant relationship between
agriculture, human needs and wildlife conservation at the local and regional scales. Selecting the
geographical scale is a critical theme of designing experimental research for me because I want
my results to be applicable in real field conditions. Consequently and because of my interest in wildlife conservation, I volunteered as CIAT’s waterfowl management advisor. My contribution to this project along with many others made it possible for CIAT to earn the Colombian Golden Hawk award for the improvement of habitat and environmental quality in Andean landscape agrosystems.
However, I also have volunteered in a variety of training opportunities: netting bats, running bird banding stations in both the tropical rainforests and the temperate forests in North America. I also have worked in a different but equally demanding experience of oceanographic data collecting in the Pacific Ocean. The significance of that experience was conducting extensive fieldwork and traveling through Latin America as well as in North America. Overall, with contrasting experiences, I choose to be exposed to the challenges in both local and regional levels, interacting with communities, diverse cultures, building up data and helping others to achieve targets for conservation biology.
My goal is to study gene flow processes at the small geographical scale. Results in this field will assist local and regional plans for the conservation of evolutionary processes. As I am truly concerned about biodiversity depletion due to human population expansion and global warming. I explicitly intend to merge approaches from conservation biology and evolutionary biology. Furthermore, many of the strongest international conservation initiatives do not address species in the historical context in order to preserve evolutionary processes. Consequently, I will focus my work on conservation priorities; for instance, in one of 25 global biodiversity hotspots. My long-term goal is to conduct and facilitate scientifically based conservation in the Neotropics. Collaborative work linking organizations and enhancing quantifiable regional projects and local initiatives will be part of my methodological approach.
During my career, I have gone through several scientific institutions and a variety of training opportunities, which have enriched my motivation to study avian systematics. In general, I have conducted scientific research in two main areas, agricultural phytopathology and bird studies. Consequently, I will describe some of my research experiences in Neotropical bird systematics, molecular biology research, fieldwork and labwork. Moreover, through each of these experiences, I will try to remark on collaborative work with scientific institutions as an approach that I have been practicing to achieve my scientific goals while working in the Neotropics.
In the last three years, I reconstructed the phylogeny and biogeography of mountain tanagers, focusing on an avian group with continental distributions. In this project carried out at San Diego State University, I addressed the congruence between taxonomy and gene trees that span roughly 10 million years. Data consisted of sequences with more than 2500 base pairs for 103 bird species, and I used 23 pieces of analytical software to manage what now might be considered a small data set.
My contribution was part of a larger project reconstructing the phylogeny for almost 10% of all global bird species. One major aspect of my thesis was indicating high levels of intraspecific variation, which required further investigation to clarify patterns of diversification at the population level. To achieve this project goal, I conducted fieldwork in the Neotropical region and collaborative work with 11 museums around the world, including seven organizations in Colombia and Venezuela. This research experience was also critical to catching the attention of UCLA students in several scientific meetings. As a result, I was invited to present my data at the Center of Tropical Research-UCLA, where I was introduced to my current Ph D research advisor Dr. Tom Smith.
During the last phase of my Master project (2006-2007) I implemented an initiative to support local students in Latin America. Through my project I was able to enhance fieldwork activities by visiting common locations and identifying potential candidates for more extensive training. Then, through one of the partner institutions in Colombia, I was able to assist the student Diana Lopez whose research was awarded by the Colombian Association of Ornithology (2007). Today, the partner institution is receptive to continuing collaborative work.
Receiving recommendation to obtain funding will also help me to enhance educational impact with my research. I have gathered preliminary experience that will allow me to succeed in achieving my goals and to develop collaborative work with students. Further, the Master program gave me strong skills that I will apply when conducting my current Ph D project.
In retrospect, my previous training in agricultural research at CIAT enabled me to gain experience that I directly applied to my Master thesis project. I gained a strong basis in molecular biology techniques, data management and resourcefulness. I experimented to develop bacteria-free plants. My contribution consisted of designing antibiotic plant trials and then characterizing remaining natural bacteria. I worked on a variety of projects, from greenhouse management and PCR priming design to cloning and cell culture. These are not unusual skills for today’s graduate students. However, 15 years ago I had to engineer my own plasmid sets and do old-fashioned minipreps. This means I have a lot of experience in labwork for any well-trained molecular biologist. Now I feel comfortable updating my labwork skills with novel technologies that are available for my research project here at Center of Tropical Research-UCLA.
The foundation of my experience was as a research assistant in a plant virology lab at the Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). I molecularly characterized of over 57 virus strains in more than 20 plant species with economic significance worldwide. I was part of a very supportive group and we won the distinction of the neatest laboratory in CIAT for 3 years in a row. This distinction is only awarded to lab groups exhibiting quality information as well as high levels of ethics and laboratory safety.
In this position I screened more than 2000 plant lineages for susceptibility to the most significant virus infections in the Neotropics. On this project, I supervised three other technicians and supported several different projects with plant material. Therefore, in situ and ex situ germoplasm conservation is a well-founded part of my research experience. From this, I was exposed to a high standard of research ethics and complying with international and regional environmental authorities in Latin America. I joined the virology Lab in late 1997 because of my previous experience as an undergraduate studying with Dr. Felipe Garcia, I examined human immunological response to viruses affecting Northwestern South American populations. This work enabled me to be distinguished as a young scientist in Colombia and obtain funding to be trained in pathogen molecular biology.
These recent research experiences in my career lasted 3-4 years on average, I also have accumulated research experience studying the natural history of birds in my spare time. I spent 4 years taking careful field notes describing previously unknown nesting activities of two endemic woodpeckers in the Neotropics. Furthermore, in 2002, I contributed as coauthor in a publication describing trees, bushes and birds in agrosystems. This was possible after recording field notes over 2 years. The temporal avian dynamics addressed in that document had direct applications in waterfowl management in agricultural systems. Overall, my research has been published in 10 papers including technical reports and manuals.
In summary, I am familiar navigating between Latin America organizations thereby achieving my research and conservation goals. Currently, I am collaborating with colleagues in Dr. Tom Smith's group experimenting with spatial analyses of ecological suitability, which will be very valuable skills conducting my research.